After a short Olympic hiatus, the talk in Israel's bars and cafes is turning back to the perennial subject of Iran, its potential nuclear capability and whether it would ever attempt to use a bomb against the Jewish State.
As usual, the local media fuels the flames, the latest being a report in Haaretz, quoting an unnamed Western diplomat, that Iran is closer than first thought to its purported goal of possessing nuclear weapons. This is supported to some extent by Britain's Daily Telegraph, which quoted Iranian opposition sources as saying the country's elite Revolutionary Guards have established a team of 60 nuclear scientists at the Lavizan Base, near Teheran.
All this is nothing new. I remember interviewing a senior Israeli military figure a decade ago who stated categorically that Iran not [the then Saddam Hussein led] Iraq was Israel's main threat when it came to weapons of mass destruction. He predicted the West would eventually have to deal with the Teheran regime over its attempts to acquire a nuclear arsenal and if diplomacy failed, force had to be the next option.
However, in 2012 the situation in Israel has become more urgent with a feeling in the country that the 'if' for a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities has become a 'when' - and for somewhat prosaic reasons which Australians will recognise.
Firstly, opinion polls: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's popularity has plummeted in recent months following a series of tough but necessary economic measures. In figures that would be depressingly familiar to his Australian counterpart Julia Gillard, just 31 per cent of Israelis are satisfied with his performance while 60 per cent say they are dissatisfied. This is shocking for a man who has, up to now, enjoyed a satisfaction rating above 50 per cent throughout his time in office.
On top of this he is facing a Knesset (Parliament) inquiry into alleged double-dipping on overseas travel expenses in 2006 before he became Prime Minister.
Talking tough on the Iran issue may be one way back for the embattled PM, and he has been doing just that. Deliberate leaks from a supposedly closed meeting has him castigating security officials for their timidity over the Iranian threat, saying that he is willing to accept full responsibility in the face of national and international repercussions following an Israeli attack.
Even so, most observers believe that any strike will not happen in the immediate future because of the pending election in the United States. President Barak Obama's foreign policy is more or less on track – American combat forces have left Iraq and are gradually withdrawing from Afghanistan – and the last thing he needs is another Israeli-inspired flashpoint before the November poll that would likely send the price of oil soaring. Even Netanyahu at his most belligerent will not go against Israel's only ally in a hostile world.
But does that mean a strike against Iran is a certainty, later if not sooner? The answer is no for a variety of reasons, one being that there is no certainty it would end or even severely disrupt the Islamic Republic's nuclear progress. Because of the scattered nature of the various manufacturing facilities, the whereabouts of some hidden from the West, most estimates suggest even a successful strike would delay the program only by around two years. Against that Israeli hawks contend the bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in June, 1981 prompted estimates of the same time frame, yet Iraq never went on to produce a bomb.
There is another view, controversially proposed by one of the world's most prominent scholars on international relations, Kenneth Waltz of the University of California, Berkeley. Waltz believes a nuclear armed Iran would actually bring stability to the Middle East. He reasons the region has, for too long, been unbalanced by Israel as the lone State possessing a nuclear capability. Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine he says the only surprising thing about the nuclear situation in the Middle East is that a potential balancer to Israel has not appeared before.
While few would agree with Waltz, there is logic to his argument. The balance of power between the US and the Soviet Union prevented the Cold War from becoming hot for more than 40 years; India and Pakistan are reluctant to escalate their traditional tensions now that both have nuclear weapons.
He rejects the argument that Iran is a special case because of its irrational leadership – the so called 'mad mullah' proposition that the leaders would press the button to destroy Israel regardless of the consequences. While President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's comments about pushing Israel into the sea have often been quoted as reasons to prevent his country getting nuclear weapons, he is not the supreme leader and what power he has may be in decline.
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